This week saw a very sad anniversary for Brontë lovers, as the 19th of December marked the 171st anniversary of the death, aged 30, of Emily Brontë. The last weeks of her life were traumatic, especially for her family, and as Charlotte said of her, ‘She died in a time of promise’. Let us not remember the details of her passing however, but instead concentrate on her life and her work – for they were truly brilliant.
Those who knew Emily paid testament to the fact that, even though she was painfully shy, she was tremendously kind-hearted. Today we can get to know Emily through her work, and whether it was painting, poetry or prose it was universally fantastic. Emily, like her sisters and brother, was a more than proficient artist, so I’ve used some of her art to illustrate this post, including this picture of Nero, the hawk she rescued from the moors and nursed back to health:
You may have noticed that we are rapidly approaching Christmas! Time really does fly, but whilst technology is changing every aspect of our world it’s nice to know that some traditions remain, especially during this festive period. That means that some of the activities that the Brontës would have enjoyed at this time of year, from pudding making to carol singing, remain today.
On Christmas day itself I will have a special post that will, as has become my blogging tradition, finish with Anne Brontë’s own Christmas words, but it will also include a celebration of something which was only invented in the Brontës’ lifetime – the Christmas card. I know that many of you will be too busy on the big day itself to spend time on the net, so today’s post is finishing with a Christmas theme too, this time courtesy of Emily.
If I won’t get the chance to say it to you on Wednesday I will say it now: Merry Yule and Happy Christmas (oh and Happy Hanukkah to those who are celebrating that today as well)! If you’re spending it with your family, friends and loved ones – have a joyous one; if you’re on your own, turn to the company of a great book and have a glass of something nice. Treat yourself – you deserve it! We close this post with a look at Christmas day celebrations from Wuthering Heights, and we can think of how Emily Brontë and her siblings must have witnessed similar events every year at that parsonage in Haworth. I must go now, I think I can hear the approach of the Gimmerton band:
“The little party recovered its equanimity at sight of the fragrant feast. They were hungry after their ride, and easily consoled, since no real harm had befallen them. Mr. Earnshaw carved bountiful platefuls, and the mistress made them merry with lively talk. I waited behind her chair, and was pained to behold Catherine, with dry eyes and an indifferent air, commence cutting up the wing of a goose before her. ‘An unfeeling child,’ I thought to myself; ‘how lightly she dismisses her old playmate’s troubles. I could not have imagined her to be so selfish.’ She lifted a mouthful to her lips: then she set it down again: her cheeks flushed, and the tears gushed over them. She slipped her fork to the floor, and hastily dived under the cloth to conceal her emotion. I did not call her unfeeling long; for I perceived she was in purgatory throughout the day, and wearying to find an opportunity of getting by herself, or paying a visit to Heathcliff, who had been locked up by the master: as I discovered, on endeavouring to introduce to him a private mess of victuals.
In the evening we had a dance. Cathy begged that he might be liberated then, as Isabella Linton had no partner: her entreaties were vain, and I was appointed to supply the deficiency. We got rid of all gloom in the excitement of the exercise, and our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them. After the usual carols had been sung, we set them to songs and glees. Mrs. Earnshaw loved the music, and so they gave us plenty.
Catherine loved it too: but she said it sounded sweetest at the top of the steps, and she went up in the dark: I followed. They shut the house door below, never noting our absence, it was so full of people. She made no stay at the stairs’-head, but mounted farther, to the garret where Heathcliff was confined, and called him. He stubbornly declined answering for a while: she persevered, and finally persuaded him to hold communion with her through the boards. I let the poor things converse unmolested, till I supposed the songs were going to cease, and the singers to get some refreshment: then I clambered up the ladder to warn her. Instead of finding her outside, I heard her voice within. The little monkey had crept by the skylight of one garret, along the roof, into the skylight of the other, and it was with the utmost difficulty I could coax her out again. When she did come, Heathcliff came with her, and she insisted that I should take him into the kitchen, as my fellow-servant had gone to a neighbour’s, to be removed from the sound of our ‘devil’s psalmody,’ as it pleased him to call it. I told them I intended by no means to encourage their tricks: but as the prisoner had never broken his fast since yesterday’s dinner, I would wink at his cheating Mr. Hindley that once. He went down: I set him a stool by the fire, and offered him a quantity of good things: but he was sick and could eat little, and my attempts to entertain him were thrown away. He leant his two elbows on his knees, and his chin on his hands and remained rapt in dumb meditation. On my inquiring the subject of his thoughts, he answered gravely—‘I’m trying to settle how I shall pay Hindley back. I don’t care how long I wait, if I can only do it at last. I hope he will not die before I do!’”
Christmas preparations are in full swing chez Holland, and I’m juggling work on my book about Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey with completing my Christmas shopping. Both are a joy and not a chore of course, but I hope you won’t mind if today’s post is a rather shorter one than usual.
Charlotte was a brilliant novelist, of course, and a wonderful poet too, but some of her best writing can be found in her letters. She was always frank in her correspondence and often brilliantly descriptive too. Her husband Arthur Bell Nicholls once called her letters ‘dangerous as lucifer matches’, fearing that she opened herself up too much in them. Even then he must have been concerned that one day the public would see them after her death, and for this reason he also demanded that Ellen Nussey burned the correspondence she had received from her best friend.
Thankfully for us all, she resisted this call, and today we can indeed read hundreds of letters from Charlotte Brontë’s genius mind. Arthur had nothing to worry about, for reading the letters can only make Charlotte grow in our estimation. It also allows us to share in what the Brontës were doing on a particular day, so I leave you now with a letter sent by Charlotte to Ellen on 15th December 1846. We hear about Anne’s characteristic courage when dealing with her asthma, and of the cold weather affecting Haworth then, just as it does now. I hope that wherever you are, you aren’t experiencing too much of a North-Pole day, and that you and your loved ones are healthy and happy. Charlotte’s writing, and that of her sisters, can always bring a warming glow:
“I hope you are not frozen up; the cold here is dreadful. I do not remember such a series of North-Pole days. England might really have taken a slide up into the Arctic Zone; the sky looks like ice; the earth is frozen; the wind is as keen as a two-edged blade. We have all had severe colds and coughs in consequence of the weather. Poor Anne has suffered greatly from asthma, but is now, we are glad to say, rather better. She had two nights last week when her cough and difficulty of breathing were painful indeed to hear and witness, and must have been most distressing to suffer; she bore it, as she bears all affliction, without one complaint, only sighing now and then when nearly worn out. She has an extraordinary heroism of endurance. I admire, but I certainly could not imitate her.”
As Anne Brontë reveals in her often autobiographical novel ‘Agnes Grey‘, she frequently turned to poetry when in need of solace:
“When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry – and often find it, too.”
Anne loved to read poetry, but thankfully for us she loved to write it too, and her verse often gives us clues about her life and feelings at the time she put quill to paper. She also often, although not always, dates her poems, giving us further clues to the inner meaning of her verse. On one occasion Anne even helpfully gave her poem the title of the date she composed it: ‘Monday Night May 11th 1846′, although Charlotte later changed its title to the rather more catchy ‘Domestic Peace‘.
The poem we are going to look at today is dated Sunday, 13th December 1840 and as this is the Sunday before that date in this year’s calendar rotation it seemed a fitting time to examine it. It is called simply ‘Retirement’, but it’s not referring to a permanent retirement at the end of a working life, but a rather shorter retirement at the end of a working day, week or term.
The date of its composition may indicate that this was Anne’s last day at Thorp Green before returning home to Haworth for the Christmas holidays with the family she loved. She had commenced her post as governess there in May of that year, and although her Robinson charges were much better behaved than her previous Ingham charges of Mirfield (as all who’ve read of the Bloomfield children in ‘Agnes Grey’ will appreciate) she still longed for peace and solitude once more.
All of the Brontë siblings were shy, and Anne’s difficulties when in company led Charlotte to wonder whether her employers would believe that she stuttered, but with typical courage Anne fought and overcame her introverted nature when at work, allowing her to hold down a job for far longer than her sisters and brother. Elizabeth Gaskell, based solely upon what she had heard from Charlotte and other Haworth villagers, made a distinction between the natures of Anne and Emily:
“Emily was… extremely reserved in manner. I distinguish reserve from shyness, because I imagine shyness would please, if it knew how; whereas, reserve is indifferent whether it pleases or not. Anne, like her eldest sister, was shy; Emily was reserved.”
This may well have been unfair on Emily, for those who knew her best, like parsonage servant Martha Brown, often commented on how kind hearted she was. Nevertheless there is no doubt that all the sisters found it a strain to be in the company of people they didn’t know, and this is at the heart of Anne’s poem.
At the end of her first year as governess to the Robinsons, Anne was in desperate need of some relaxation – a chance to rest her mind and spirit and simply let it stretch its wings and soar where it will. This is a feeling that all teachers will be familiar with, but whether you work or have reached a state of permanent retirement I hope that you find a time to rest and relax as the winter holidays approach. Let us end now with Anne’s poem itself, short, simple and yet it still resonates with us all today!:
“O, let me be alone a while,
No human form is nigh.
And may I sing and muse aloud,
No mortal ear is by.
Away! ye dreams of earthly bliss,
Ye earthly cares begone:
Depart! ye restless wandering thoughts,
And let me be alone!
One hour, my spirit, stretch thy wings,
And quit this joyless sod,
Bask in the sunshine of the sky,
And be alone with God!”
The water in my bird feeder was a solid block of ice this morning, Jack Frost had left patterns on my single glazed windows and there was a distant murmur of sleigh bells in the air; it can only mean one thing – winter has arrived! December 1st marks the beginning not only of Advent, but of meteorological winter, so today we will be looking at how winter has appeared in some very beautiful pieces of Brontë writing.
We are also now just one month away from the start of 2020, the 200th birthday year of our beloved Anne Brontë! Please allow me then to give a brief mention of my new book ‘Crave The Rose: Anne Brontë At 200’ which will be released on 1st January, a month today! It will be a very special book indeed featuring many things never published in a book before, but more on that in the New Year. You can pre-order on Amazon at your bookshop or order now via the publisher, The Valley Press from Anne’s very own Scarborough! Here is its rather lovely front cover:
Now, let’s return to chilly winter! Haworth is a beautiful place in winter, with its exposed and elevated position amidst the Pennine moors meaning that it always receives a good covering of snow. It’s a magical place for tourists to visit, but watch out for ice – it’s as treacherous today as it was in December 1836 when loyal old servant Tabby Aykroyd slipped on some ice and broke her leg. She was never as mobile again, but the Brontë siblings loved Tabby and they refused to eat until it was confirmed that she would be allowed to continue living and working in the parsonage.
Wrap up warm, tread carefully, and you are sure to have an incredible time on a winter visit to Haworth. The moors can be especially charming under a wintry blanket, and it was this that tempted Charlotte Brontë to walk them with her new husband Arthur Bell Nicholls, as she recalled in a letter to Ellen Nussey:
Charlotte could little have guessed that this very same waterfall would one day bear her own family name – a century and a half later they draw tourists to them, eager to see the Brontë Falls. Winter can be found, symbolically, in Charlotte’s novel ‘Villette’ as its heroine is called Lucy Snowe. The importance of this choice is shown by the fact that the protagonist’s name was changed to Snowe during the editing phase – until that point, Charlotte had called her Lucy Frost!
Anne Brontë loved nature, and especially its flowers, and they pop up time and time again in her work. The winter rose, or a Christmas Rose as we might call it, held a special symbolism for her, as we see in this touching scene as Helen and Gilbert prepare to pledge their futures to each other in ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’:
Winter snows also play a central role in ‘The Student’s Serenade’, a very moving poem by Anne, and one of her very best. Moving because we see Anne tired after a day’s study, or possibly a day’s work as a governess at the time she wrote this in 1844, when she is woken by snow falling and immediately thinks of snows falling on the moors she loved – and of one who loved to walk them in the snow with her but who has long been gone:
“I have slept upon my couch
But my spirit did not rest,
For the labours of the day
Yet my weary soul opprest.
And before my dreaming eyes
Still the learned volumes lay,
And I could not close their leaves
And I could not turn away.
While the grim preceptors laughed
And exulted in my woe:
Till I felt my tingling frame
With the fire of anger glow.
But I oped my eyes at last,
And I heard a muffled sound,
‘Twas the night breeze come to say
That the snow was on the ground.
Then I knew that there was rest
On the mountain’s bosom free;
So I left my fevered couch
And I flew to waken thee.
I have flown to waken thee –
For, if thou wilt not arise,
Then my soul can drink no peace
From these holy moonlight skies.
And this waste of virgin snow
To my sight will not be fair
Unless thou wilt smiling come,
Love, to wander with me there.
Then awake! Maria, wake!
For if thou couldst only know
How the quiet moonlight sleeps
On this wilderness of snow
And the groves of ancient trees
In their snowy garb arrayed,
Till they stretch into the gloom
Of the distant valley’s shade.
O, I know thou wouldst rejoice
To inhale this bracing air,
Thou wouldst break thy sweetest sleep
To behold a scene so fair.
O’er these wintry wilds, alone,
Thou wouldst joy to wander free;
And it will not please thee less,
Though that bliss be shared with me.”
Emily Brontë loved nature even more than Anne did, and the wilder it was, the more she loved it. It’s no surprise then that Emily opens her mighty novel ‘Wuthering Heights’ with a fierce snow storm that leads to narrator Lockwood making an early acquaintance with Heathcliff – and Catherine!
The holly tree has long been synonymous with winter and with Christmas, as the beautiful carol ‘The Holly And The Ivy’ shows. This is an old hymn and its associations are older, for holly has been revered since pagan times. It is a symbol of rebirth, for in the depths of winter it is said that the Holly King reigns over the world, to be replaced by the Oak King when new roots and new life appear. Emily loved the Holly king’s reign, and winter was always a magical time for her. For Emily Brontë, holly also symbolised the importance of friendship, and its pre-eminence over everything else. We see this in her poem ‘Love And Friendship’, also dating from 1844, and obviously written with the love of her life in mind, her closest friends and confidante, Anne Brontë. It is a sweet poem for this sweetest of seasons – so I leave you with it now, and with Emily’s winter blessing – may your garlands always be green!
On Friday I went to see a show called ‘The Secrets Of The Selkies’ at Sheffield’s Kelham Island Museum. Fronted by Dr. Fay Hield, it was a magical performance encapsulating beautiful folk music, spoken word, animation and film – with a questions and answer session and a selkie sing along to finish. A great time was had by all, and it allowed the audience to immerse themselves in selkies, faeries and folklore in general. Selkies, if you didn’t already know, are seal like creatures who can shed their skins, come to land and live life as a human – but they always have a longing to return to their watery origins! The event made me think of the impact of faerie tales and folklore upon the Brontës, and its appearance in their work, so that’s what we’re going to look at today.
The Brontës might be seen as Yorkshire through and through, but they had double Celtic influences. Their father Patrick was Irish, and their mother Maria was Cornish (and of course they were then raised by their Cornish aunt Elizabeth after her untimely death). That’s a powerful combination, and it means they were exposed to myths and legends from an early age. It’s something that lovers of Brontë books can all be thankful for!
We know that faithful old parsonage servant Tabby Aykroyd regaled the children with the folklore of Pennine Yorkshire, including stories of changelings – faerie children who had been switched with a human child. This influence can clearly be seen in Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff – the child who appears out of nowhere, with no family background, and proceeds to wreak havoc in his new home.
It may seem strange then that although ‘changeling’ appears twice in ‘Wuthering Heights’ on neither occasion does it refer to Heathcliff. We see it applied to Linton on the eve of his wedding, forced upon him by Heathcliff: “‘Take you with her, pitiful changeling!’ I exclaimed. ‘You marry? Why, the man is mad! or he thinks us fools, every one.’”
We also see it applied to Catherine, or at least the ghost of her, after the narrator Lockwood has endured his night of torment in the box bed: “’And that minx, Catherine Linton, or Earnshaw, or however she was called—she must have been a changeling—wicked little soul! She told me she had been walking the earth these twenty years: a just punishment for her mortal transgressions, I’ve no doubt!’”
As we shall see, this is far from the only folklore in the tale, as Emily’s novel revels in it. In this most brilliant of novels we also see the clear Cornish influence, however, which must have come from her Aunt Branwell. Cornwall was a land steeped in lore and legend, although in 1824 the Cornish historian Samuel Drew was already bemoaning a change in attitudes:
“The age of piskays, like that of chivalry, is gone. There is, perhaps, at present hardly a house they are reputed to visit. They neither steal children, nor displace domestic articles. Even the fields and lanes which they formerly frequented seem to be nearly forsaken. Their music is rarely heard; and they appear to have forgotten to attend their ancient midnight dance. The diffusion of knowledge, by which the people have been enlightened during the last half century, has considerably reduced the numbers of piskays; and even the few that remain, are evidently preparing to take their departure.”
Drew is talking metaphorically here, showing how increasing industrialisation in Cornwall was eroding old faiths in the little people of the land. It is not the piskays, or pixies as they are styled elsewhere, that are departing, but belief in them. Nevertheless, around the moors of Cornwall belief held on, and, as I found when I visited there last year, the Brontë motherland of Penzance remains a place where old customs are cherished and celebrated.
Four hundred miles separates them, but Penzance and Haworth have a surprising amount in common, not least the mysterious moors which envelop them. On the moors outside Penzance stands an ancient round stone with a hole in it. Known as the Men-an-Tol, sickly children were brought to it and passed through the hole nine times to be cured – for as we all know, nine is the number of magic. It was also said that if a woman crawls through it backwards on a night of the full moon she will soon become pregnant.
This Men-an-Tol legend bears great similarity to a similar ancient stone structure called Ponden Kirk. This is a large stone column with a hollow hole at ground level. Legend says that if a couple crawl through it together and marry within a year they will have a child, but if they fail to marry the woman is cursed to die. Ponden Kirk is not on the Cornish Moors, it’s on the Pennine Moors, a short walk from Haworth and a place where Emily and Anne Brontë often walked to. It too features in ‘Wuthering Heights’, under the name of Penistone Crag, where Emily demonstrates the truth in its ancient legend:
“This bed is the fairy cave under Penistone Crag, and you are gathering elf-bolts to hurt our heifers; pretending, while I am near, that they are only locks of wool. That’s what you’ll come to fifty years hence: I know you are not so now. I’m not wandering, you’re mistaken, or I should believe you really were that withered hag, and I should think I was under Penistone Crag.’”
Catherine is delirious on her death bed, a death bed that will yield up Cathy. She crawled through the crag with Heathcliff but did not marry him, and now she has to die.
‘Wuthering Heights’ is infused with magic, you could say it casts a spell of its very own. Certainly it has held me in its power since I first read it aged 18, and now I believe it to be the most magical novel ever written.
Emily is not the only Brontë who features folklore in her work however, for we also see it appearing regularly in Charlotte’s writing. There’s the ghost nun in ‘Villette’ for instance, and in ‘Jane Eyre’ we also encounter a gytrash!:
“I heard a rush under the hedge, and close by glided a great dog, whose black and white colour made him a distinct object against the trees. It was exactly one form of Bessie’s Gytrash… Nothing ever rode the Gytrash: it was always alone.”
This is actually Rochester’s huge dog Pilot, rather than a gytrash – a demonic dog! Charlotte had heard tales of the gytrash from Tabby, possibly, but with certainty from the Heatons of Ponden Hall. The Hall was often visited by the Brontë children, not least for the attractions of its huge library, and it is reputedly haunted by its very own gytrash.
Perhaps Charlotte’s most incredible reference to folklore, however, comes in her little known ‘Willie Ellin‘, an unfinished novel from which we have only a few fragments. One of these fragments, however, contains a description of a faerie like creature who seems connected to the building at the centre of the book:
“In other countries, and in distant times, it is possible that more of my kind might have been attracted to human dwellings – hut or mansion – and secretly taken them in lease, than for these hundred years past have been known to make their home in such abodes. Yet we were always few, our presence rare, its signs faint, and its proofs difficult to seize…
Who am I? Was I owner of the house? No. Was I its resident tenant, taking it perhaps on lease, and paying the rent? No. Was I a child of the family? No. A servant? No. Ask me no more questions for they are difficult to meet. I was there, and it was my house.
I recollect the first hour that I knew it. I came to consciousness at a moment within the rim of twilight. I came upward out of earth – not downward from heaven, and what first welcomed and seemed to aid me to life was a large disk high over me, a globule, clear, cragged, and desolate. I saw the moon before I could see the sky; but that too, night-veiled and star-inspired, soon opened for me. A sweet silence watched my birth-hour. I took affection for this mossy spot, I stole all through building and nook of land. In the mild beam and pure humidity of a midsummer night I found my seal and sign printed here in dew and there in moonbeam on roof and lawn of Ellin Balcony.
I do not know that ever I was knit with humanity, or was mixed with the mystery of existence as men or women know it. Yet had no mortal relic slumbered near the Balcony, should I have risen Would Night, my mother, have borne me, unwedded to a certain vital, mortal essence ? Tears had watered this ground; great sorrows and strong feelings had gathered here. Could a colder soil, drenched only with rain and visited only by airs and shadows, have yielded me as its produce? I even think that some one sleeper threw me out of a great labouring heart which had toiled terribly through his thirty, or sixty, or fourscore years of work, had lived and throbbed strongly, stood still while yet in vigour, and buried, yet warm and scarce arrested, had thrown forth its unslackened glow and ill-checked action in an essence bodiless and incomplete, yet penetrative and subtle.
I believe this because my relations to men were so limited. To millions I felt no tie, found no approach; to tens I might draw gently. Whether units existed that could more actively attract it, yet lay with time and chance to show. Whoever in my early days were the inmates of Ellin Balcony, on me they made no impression. I knew every stone in the walls. I knew the neighbourhood – the knolls, the lanes, the turfed wastes, all vegetable growth, field flowers, hedge plants, yellow gorse and broom, foxglove springing bright out of stony soil, ivy on ground or wall. I distinguished and now remember these things very well. I knew the seasons, the faces of summer and winter. Spring and autumn were familiar in their skies; night, day, and the hours were all acquaintances. Storm and fair weather complete my reminiscences. I cannot recall anything human, and yet humanity was in the house. Experience now tells me that it must have been busy, bustling humanity, an alert current of life flowing out after to towns and thickly peopled scenes, returning thence with accessions – life circulating in a free, ordinary channel, never stealing slow under the banks of thought, never winding in deeps, but coursing parallel with populous highways. At last, I suppose, this practical daily life forsook retirement and went permanently away to the towns which were its natural sphere. This departure made no difference to me, except that I remember looking at the sun and listening to the wind with a new holiday feeling of unconstraint.
About this time I first added a cognisance of the individual human being to a vague impression of a human race existing. A solitary old woman became housekeeper of Ellin Balcony. She used to feed a great dog chained in the now empty yard, to close and open shutters, to knit a great deal, and read and think a little. I believe it was because she did think, however little, that I had the power to perceive her presence. Those who had lived here before her never thought, and into an existence all material I could not enter.”
This is a tale unlike any other in the Brontë canon, if only Charlotte could have written more of it and explained the mytery of this faery-like spirit.
So, we see folklore throughout the Brontë writing. It inspired the Brontë siblings and it inspires us today, for what is this life if we can’t devote a little of it to the magical and mysterious? There are no selkies in the Brontë novels, but then were the Brontë characters selkies themselves, of a kind? Jane Eyre sheds her governess skin and becomes a wealthy heiress with the man she loves; Helen Graham sheds her skin as an abused wife and becomes a strong, independent woman; Heathcliff sheds – well, not all characters can be selkies. But we can all be a little selkie-like ourselves, and devote time to losing ourselves in the magic of literature – our very own step from boring land into the promise-filled water of our imaginations.
As we all know, the Brontë siblings missed out on many of the familial connections that most people today take for granted. Their mother died when they were all in infancy, with Anne Brontë just one year old, and although they had lots of aunts and uncles on both sides of the family the distance between Yorkshire and their homelands of Ireland and Cornwall precluded them visiting their nieces and nephew. The exception to this being Aunt Branwell of course, who started a new life in Yorkshire to look after her sister’s children.
What is quite certain is that the Brontës knew none of their grandparents, and never knew the unique love that can form between those generations. I was lucky enough to live with my grandmother Ivy between the ages of 8 to 15, and I have her to thank for everything good in my character. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her, and I often dream of her too – and that set me wondering whether the Brontës heard tales of their grandmothers or asked questions about them, and if so, what would they have heard?
Anne Carne was the maternal grandmother of the Brontës. She was born in Penzance, Cornwall, in 1744, the daughter of John Carne and his wife Anne (nee Reynolds). The Carnes were a leading family in Penzance society, firstly for their success as merchants and then for their role in setting up the first bank in the town – Batten, Carne & Carne, which opened its doors in 1797.
The Carnes were also among the early Wesleyans in this town that became such a stronghold of the emerging faith which came to be known as Methodism. The Wesleys, John and his brother Charles who became famous for his hymns, brought a new evangelicalism to the Church of England, preaching the importance of temperance but also the reality of a loving and forgiving God. They were also heavily in support of better working and living conditions for the poorest in society, which brought them great popularity in places like Cornwall.
John Wesley travelled the country, preaching outdoors to huge crowds, but at first Penzance’s minister John Borlase was less than happy to see him and threatened to have him put in jail if he visited the region again. By 1860 Wesley was writing that: ‘at Noon I preached on the cliff near Penzance, where no one now gives an uncivil word.’
Surely among the large crowd on this occasion was Anne Carne and her family, and also another prominent merchant family of Penzance who were firm advocates of Wesleyanism: the Branwells. It may have been this shared piety that brought Anne Carne and Thomas Branwell together, but it was also certainly a good match on financial terms, uniting as it did two of Penzance’s wealthiest families. They married on 28th November 1768 in Madron parish church.
We might also like to think that, not always the case with such weddings, this was a love match. Anne and Thomas had a very productive marriage, having twelve children, not all of whom survived infancy. Anne gave birth to her final child, her daughter Charlotte, in 1789, when she was 45 years of age. It was Anne’s eleventh child, Maria, who left Cornwall for Yorkshire and became the mother of the Brontë siblings.
Thomas Branwell died in April 1808, and Anne followed him to the grave just a year later – the grief over the loss of her husband possibly hastening her own end. Anne Branwell, nee Carne, was obviously a woman of some character keeping such a large family in check – and from what we know of her daughters Elizabeth and Maria it seems that she encouraged education and independence in her children, sons and daughters alike. Maria never forget her mother’s influence, and paid tribute to her by naming her fifth daughter after her: Anne Brontë.
The Brontës’ paternal grandmother was Alice McClory (some accounts give her name as Ayles McClory or Eleanor McClory) of Ballynaskeagh, County Down, and her son Patrick Brontë remembered her thus in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell: ‘He [Patrick’s father Hugh] was left an orphan at an early age. It was said that he was of ancient family… He came to the north of Ireland and made an early but suitable marriage. His pecuniary means were small – but renting a few acres of land, he and my mother by dint of application and industry managed to bring up a family of ten children in a respectable manner.’
We can be sure that Alice’s marriage to Hugh was indeed a love match, for they crossed a divide that was hugely important in Ireland at the time (and still is now, to a lesser extent): whilst Hugh was a Protestant, Alice was a Catholic.
A 19th century book by William Wright called ‘The Brontës In Ireland’ attempted to trace these roots. Doubt has been raised over some of the statements in the book, but he gives us a rather lovely account of the Brontë grandmother Alice:
‘On Christmas Eve Hugh Brontë drove up furiously in a Newry gig to the house of McClory in Ballynaskeagh. He was becoming a somewhat vain man, and fond of admiration; and no doubt, as he approached McClory’s thatched cottage, with his pockets full of money, and with the self-confidence which prosperity breeds, he meant to flutter the house with his magnificence. But a surprise was in store for him. The cottage door was opened in response to his somewhat boisterous knock by a young woman of dazzling beauty. Hugh Brontë, previous to his flight, had seen few women except his aunt Mary, and in the days of his freedom he had become acquainted only with lodging-house keepers, and County Louth women, who carried their fowls and eggs to Dundalk fairs and markets. He had scarcely ever seen a comely girl, and never in his life any one who had any attractions for him.
The simply dressed, artless girl who opened the door was probably the prettiest girl in County Down at the time. On this point there is absolute unanimity in all the statements that have reached me. The words “Irish beauty and pure Celt ” have often been used in describing her. Her hair, which hung in a profusion of ringlets round her shoulders, was luminous gold. Her fore-head was Parian marble. Her evenly set teeth were lustrous pearls, and the roses of health glowed on her cheeks. She had the long dark- brown eyelashes that in Ireland so often accompany golden hair, and her deep hazel eyes had the violet tint and melting expression which in a diluted form descended to her granddaughters, and made the plain and irregular features of the Brontë girls really attractive. The eyes also contained the lambent fire that Mrs. Gaskell noticed in Charlotte’s eyes, ready to flash indignation and scorn. She had a tall and stately figure, with head well poised above a graceful neck and well-formed bust; but she did not communicate these graces of form to her granddaughters. There are people still living who remember the stately old woman “Ayles” Brontë, as she was called by her neighbours in her old age.
Hugh Brontë was completely unmanned by the radiant beauty of the simple country girl who appeared before him. He stood awkwardly staring at her with his mouth open, fumbling with his hat, and trying in vain to say something. At last he stammered out a question about Mr. McClory, and the girl, who was Alice McClory, told him that her brother would soon be home, and invited him into the house.’
Hugh fell instantly in love with the ‘Celtic beauty’ Alice, and it is believed that they eloped and married clandestinely, with the help of a complicit vicar prepared to ignore the different faiths, in Magherally church. The cottage that Alice and Hugh lived in in Emdale still stands, and remains a site of Brontë pilgrimage today.
We have Patrick’s own words as testimony to what a remarkable and forceful woman Alice was. She was a woman who worked hard and would do anything for her children. She had that in common with Anne Carne, and the strength of their genes surely passed down into their grandchildren.
Today we say thank you to Anne Carne and Alice McClory and to grandmothers across the world, many of you reading this, I know, will have grandchildren of your own – keep on doing an amazing job and giving the unconditional love that comes with that role. Let’s remember our own wonderful grandmothers today as well, whether they are still with us or not for once somebody touches your heart they’re always with you.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day when we can remember the members of the armed forces, and civilians, across the world and throughout the centuries who have fought in conflicts for the country and causes they believed in. Many fought and were injured, many fought and died. Brontë relative Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell was one of the lucky ones to fight and survive.
Arthur Branwell was the son of Thomas Brontë Branwell, which makes him a first cousin once removed of the Brontë siblings. His grandmother was Charlotte Branwell, younger sister of Maria Branwell and the aunt after whom Charlotte Brontë was named. Arthur was born in 1862 and had a long military career in which he fought in the nineteenth century Boer War among other conflicts. At the start of World War One in 1914 he came out of retirement and initially served as an instructor preparing troops about to be sent to the front line. Eventually his skills were needed in the front line himself and he was sent to France – as this picture of him and his fellow officers shows:
This is surely a happy photograph amidst the conflict raging across Europe and beyond. Captain Branwell is seated at the front, with four fresh faced lieutenants around him. Did they, like Arthur, return to civilian life after the war? The caption on the Tatler photograph gives us a sad clue: ‘this group has, alas, suffered severely since the picture was taken.’
In fact today I reveal the tragic tale of this photograph – the truth is that everyone in it, except Captain Arthur Branwell, was killed. Here are their stories:
Lieutenant Herbert Stofford Maunsell
Herbert Maunsell was born in Ottawa, Canada – his father was Brigadier General G.S. Marshall. He died of his wounds on 1st September 1915 after fighting in the Pas-de-Calais, and is buried in Choques Military Cemetery.
2nd Lieutenant William Stanley Giles
William Giles was the son of J.G. Giles. Born in Cardiff he survived the battles of France and, showing the global nature of this conflict, he was sent to Palestine. He was killed in action there aged 29 on 2nd November 2017, and is buried in Gaza Military Cemetery.
2nd Lieutenant James Frederick Gamble
James Gamble was the son of Joseph Frederick Gamble of Middlesbrough. He was killed in action aged 25 at the Battle of the Somme on 25th June 1916, and is buried at Auchonvillers Military Cemetery.
Lieutenant James Harold Elliott
James Elliott was the son of Henry and Anne Elliott of Cheltenham. He too was killed at the Battle of the Somme, on 29th November 1916. He was just 18 years old. James is buried at Beaumont-Hamel Military Cemetery.
Five men posing for a photograph, ready to give their all for their country. Only one man would ever see it again – Brontë relative Arthur Branwell. Their tales are like so many, today they are just faces on a photograph but in 1916 and 1917 they were the dead sons of fathers and mothers; they were the subjects of terse telegrams that destroyed lives forever. They were men who could have had long years ahead of them, who had so much to see, so much to give, but instead they gave their lives. Let us remember them.
November 5th is bonfire night, although many places now choose to hold bonfires and loose their fireworks the weekend before, so the chances are that you’ve already experienced the ear shattering screams of a thousand sky rockets over the last day or two. It’s an experience loved by children especially, and it must also have been well known to the Brontës as Haworth would have held its own bonfire on an annual basis.
We can be sure of this because, until it was finally repealed in 1859, every parish in England was beholden to comply with the Observation of 5th November 1605 Act. This act was made law in the immediate aftermath of the foiling of the gunpowder plot, and it made the lighting of bonfires compulsory to commemorate the failure of the plot, and act as a reminder to people of how close the plot had come to succeed. The country was bitterly divided along religious times at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and the message behind the mandated bonfires was clear – be alert for people who are enemies of the state, and if you are one of the enemies, watch out lest you too end up on an earthly fire or in an eternal one.
The day to day violence on religious lines had long since ended by the nineteenth century, although anti-Catholic sentiment, and anti-Irish sentiment, still ran deep and this may be one of the factors behind Patrick changing the family name to Brontë from the more Irish sounding Brunty or Prunty. As his church and parsonage were at the high point of the village it would have made sense for the parish bonfire to be held nearby, and at the very least Patrick would have been expected to make an appearance at the event.
It leaves us wondering what the Brontës would have felt of bonfire night, and of Guy Fawkes? As the author of a book on Guy I’m often asked about him at this time of year, and it’s fair to say that perceptions of him have changed greatly since he was captured in the early hours of the 5th of November 1605, just hours before he lit the fuse which would have blown parliament, and the whole Westminster area, to smithereens, changing the course of history in the process.
He rapidly became the face of evil personified, with the Bishop of Rochester famously denouncing Guy from his pulpit as ‘the devil from the crypt’, and the word Guy quickly became synonymous with a wicked person, as in ‘he’s a complete guy!’. Over the centuries it has lost its pejorative meaning, but the use of guy as a generic term for man or person originates in the infamy attached to Guy Fawkes. Today, many see Guy as a hero and his face is among the most instantly recognisable in the world thanks to its use in the ‘V For Vendetta’ cartoons and film, and its adoption as a mask that can be found in protests across the globe.
As today, by the nineteenth century fireworks too had become synonymous with bonfire night, and we can imagine the young Brontës looking up as they exploded into the sky above Haworth’s moors. The most popular fireworks at the time were squibs and a piece known as the ‘firing pistol’, presumably because it made a cracking sound. They weren’t as spectacular as today’s fireworks but they were far more dangerous, and newspapers across the country in early November would be filled with tragic tales of adults and children maimed, or worse.
On 15th November 1838, for example, we can read of James Taylor, aged 17. He had been attending a bonfire at Mold Green near Huddersfield, and, the Bradford Observer reported, his pockets were filled with four dozen squibs and two ounces of gunpowder. A spark from the bonfire found its way into a trouser pocket, with predictably dire results.
Contemporary reports also reveal that bonfires could be a tinder box in more than one way. By the first half of the nineteenth century many people were already seeing Guy Fawkes as an example of righteous rebellion, and rallying to his cause, meaning that bonfires could be riotous affairs. Mindful of this, authorities in Wakefield, a city in the West Riding of Yorkshire, attempted to ban the bonfire of 5th November 1849. As this report in the Leeds Intelligencer reveals, a riot erupted in which police were attacked, prisoners freed, a bystander accused of being a police spy was nearly murdered, oh and the Mayor of Wakefield had his hat knocked off:
We know that Patrick Brontë was terrified of fire, and for that reason wouldn’t allow curtains in the parsonage. He probably wasn’t too enthused about riots either, so it could be that his children were left to watch the bonfire and fireworks through the safety of a parsonage window. Nevertheless, we know that the Brontës must have been interested in, or at least aware of, the story of Guy Fawkes as Charlotte Brontë refers to him in ‘Jane Eyre‘, as the young Jane recovers from her red room ordeal:
‘Bessie invited him to walk into the breakfast-room, and led the way out. In the interview which followed between him and Mrs. Reed, I presume, from after-occurrences, that the apothecary ventured to recommend my being sent to school; and the recommendation was no doubt readily enough adopted; for as Abbot said, in discussing the subject with Bessie when both sat sewing in the nursery one night, after I was in bed, and, as they thought, asleep, “Missis was, she dared say, glad enough to get rid of such a tiresome, ill-conditioned child, who always looked as if she were watching everybody, and scheming plots underhand.” Abbot, I think, gave me credit for being a sort of infantine Guy Fawkes.’
Whatever you do this bonfire night, have fun and stay safe (and of course keep your pets indoors, safe and sound). Guy was captured just after midnight on the 5th of November and by a coincidence at that exact same time this year I will be talking about him on Radio 2, so if you’re still up and need something to send you to sleep, do tune in.
I’m busy editing my new Anne Brontë book to mark her 200th birthday, more news of which will be with you soon, so unfortunately I haven’t had time to write a completely new post, as I like to do on Sundays. As today is once more International Black Cat Day however, it seems apt to re-visit a post on that subject from a couple of years ago. I love black cats, and the magical air about them, but apparently they’re the least likely cats to be adopted. Let’s give black cats the love they deserve, after all, as this revisited post shows, the Brontës were full of love for their very own black cat:
Today is International Cat Day, so it seems a perfect opportunity to take a look at the cat in the lives of the Brontë sisters! The wet nosed four legged friends of the Brontës are well known, and visitors to the Brontë Parsonage Museum can still see the collars of Grasper, Keeper and Anne Brontë’s beloved spaniel Flossy, a gift from her pupils in the Robinson household. Their cat, Tom, however is not as well known.
Tom was a black cat that was doted upon by the Brontë siblings, and it seems that he certainly knew how to charm visitors to the Parsonage, probably with the intention of gaining a cuddle or even a tasty morsel or two. The world may change, but cats never change!
We have three pieces of evidence for the Brontës love of cats. First is this picture that Emily Brontë painted, with their cat Tiger taking centre stage along with Keeper and Flossy:
We also see two cats taking centre stage in the early part of Agnes Grey, the début novel of Anne Brontë that was heavily influenced by her real life experiences. Agnes wants to be given more to do in the northern Parsonage where she lives, but her over protective family tell her:
‘Go and practice your music, or play with the kitten.’
When Agnes leaves home to become a governess for the first time, she seeks out this kitten for special attention:
‘I rose, washed, dressed, swallowed a hasty breakfast, received the fond embraces of my father, mother, and sister, kissed the cat – to the great scandal of Sally, the maid – shook hands with her, mounted the gig, drew the veil over my face, and then, but not til then, burst into a flood of tears.’
It’s easy to imagine Anne painting this season from memory, with Aunt Branwell playing the part of mother, and Tabby Aykroyd as Sally.
There’s another sign of Anne’s fondness for cats later in the book. In a moving and tender section, the poor old woman Nancy is worried because her cat has gone missing, and she fears the local gamekeeper will have shot it. Indeed that would have been its fate, but Reverend Weston rescues it and returns it to Nancy.
We also have an eyewitness account of the Brontë cat from Ellen Nussey’s report of 1833:
‘Black ‘Tom’, the tabby, was everybody’s favourite. It received such gentle treatment it seemed to have lost its cat’s nature, and subsided into luxurious amiability and contentment.’
It’s important to note here that Ellen, always a careful and fastidious writer, has put ‘Tom’ in quotation marks, meaning that this was the name that the Brontës had given it, rather than it being simply a tom cat.
Ellen goes on to explain that Aunt Branwell was rather less fond of pets, but on this particular point the Brontë girls would not be lectured to. We’ll return to our second part of the Aunt Branwell blog this weekend, looking at her relationship with Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but as an animal lover myself I couldn’t let International Cat Day go by uncelebrated.
By the way, if you’re lucky enough to visit Haworth today, you’re sure to see a cat or two. One in particular hangs around the graveyard in front of the parsonage, its bright eyes gleaming out of the dark. As it was in the 1840s, so it is today.
I woke to the sound of my smoke detectors beeping angrily at six this morning. It’s never the perfect alarm call, and it sent me scurrying around the house in search of smoke or fire. None could be found thankfully, but as it then started beeping again there was no chance of further sleep. On the plus side, it’s provided me an ideal opportunity to write this week’s blog on the subject of fire and the Brontës.
There were no smoke detectors or fire alarms in the early nineteenth century of course, but if there were then you can be sure that Patrick Brontë would have filled the parsonage with them. Ellen Nussey, in her ‘Reminiscences’, recalled Patrick’s acute awareness of the dangers fire posed, and the actions he took to alleviate the risks:
‘Mr. Brontë’s horror of fire forbade curtains to the windows; they never had these accessories to comfort and appearance till long after Charlotte was the only inmate of the family sitting room, – she then ventured on her innovation when her friend was with her; it did not please her father but it was not forbidden.’
Ellen elucidated further on his fear, and the effect it had on his daughters:
‘The only dread he had was of fire [Ellen’s italics], and this dread was so intense it caused him to prohibit all but silk or woollen dresses for his daughters; indeed, for any one to wear any other kind of fabric was almost to forfeit his respect.’
Patrick’s fear was not an unfounded phobia, however, but based on the very real threats that were around him and his family. These were the days of open fireplaces and candle light, as well as the days of increasingly voluminous women’s clothing often made from highly flammable fabrics. As a parish priest Patrick would have had to bury many people, often girls, whose dress had fluttered across a flame and caught light. With many layers of clothing also worn, the effects of an encounter with fire in this way would often prove fatal.
Patrick’s response, as we have seen, was to ban curtains that could be ignited by a candle’s flame, and to insist that his daughters wore wool or silk as these were less immediately flammable. If we take a look through nineteenth century archives, or watch the excellent documentary ‘Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home’, we soon see that many families were not so fortunate as the Brontës, and deaths by fire happened across the country on a daily basis.
I say ‘not so fortunate’ as, despite Patrick’s precautions, there was eventually a fire in Haworth Parsonage but thanks to the quick actions of Anne and Emily the consequences were less serious than they could so easily have been.
John Greenwood, the Haworth stationer who was a close family friend, recalled the story of how Anne, as was her wont, stopped to look in upon her brother on her way to bed one night, and found that Branwell had fallen asleep while trying to read by candlelight and his room was on fire. With the help of Emily, the tallest and strongest in the house, she dragged Branwell from the room and they doused the flames with pitchers of water. Without their quick thinking and quick actions it could have been so much worse.
This scene remained, quite understandably, on their minds, and Charlotte must have been well aware of it as well, because she used it for a powerful moment in ‘Jane Eyre’:
‘Something creaked: it was a door ajar; and that door was Mr. Rochester’s, and the smoke rushed in a cloud from thence. I thought no more of Mrs. Fairfax; I thought no more of Grace Poole, or the laugh: in an instant, I was within the chamber. Tongues of flame darted round the bed: the curtains were on fire. In the midst of blaze and vapour, Mr. Rochester lay stretched motionless, in deep sleep. “Wake! wake!” I cried. I shook him, but he only murmured and turned: the smoke had stupefied him. Not a moment could be lost: the very sheets were kindling, I rushed to his basin and ewer; fortunately, one was wide and the other deep, and both were filled with water. I heaved them up, deluged the bed and its occupant, flew back to my own room, brought my own water-jug, baptised the couch afresh, and, by God’s aid, succeeded in extinguishing the flames which were devouring it.’
Branwell has inspired Rochester and Bertha in this scene, he is the inadvertent fire starter and its potential victim, but thankfully Anne had been on hand to be the rescuing Jane. Later in Charlotte’s novel we find that Bertha has succeeded and burnt down Thornfield Hall, destroying herself, but not quite Rochester, in the process.
In Anne’s novels we see fire represent something very different – it is not danger, but passion, love. In the first section ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’, Gilbert calls upon Helen:
‘”How dismal you are, Helen! Why have you no fire?” I said, looking round on the gloomy apartment.
“It is summer yet,” she replied.
“But we always have a fire in the evenings, if we can bear it; and you especially require one in this cold house and dreary room.”
“You should have come a little sooner, and I would have had one lighted for you: but it is not worth while now.”’
Helen has no fire, metaphorically, because she has no love and at that point, no hope; her hearth and heart are cold, but as we see later, like the winter rose with snow upon its leaves it can still be rekindled.
In ‘Agnes Grey‘, Agnes is cheered by a chance encounter with Reverend Weston that to some may seem insignificant, but to Agnes it has warmed her world:
‘Well! what is there remarkable in all this? Why have I recorded it? Because, reader, it was important enough to give me a cheerful evening, a night of pleasing dreams, and a morning of felicitous hopes. Shallow-brained cheerfulness, foolish dreams, unfounded hopes, you would say; and I will not venture to deny it: suspicions to that effect arose too frequently in my own mind. But our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.’
Whatever our dreams, let us all keep the flame of hope alive, and let us all bask in the warm glow that comes from a Brontë book. Oh, and let’s all make sure that our smoke detectors are in good working order and not likely to wake us at an altogether unholy hour on a Sunday morning.